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What We Talk About When We Talk About Marriage

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Washington, D.C. -- "We love you."

The words warmed the chill during the first of two days of Supreme Court oral arguments on the future of marriage law in the United States. The scene outside the Court building, where most of the media was camped out, reminded me of the story of the Tower of Babel in the Bible. Only here, everyone was using the same word, but couldn't quite agree on what it meant.


But closer to the Washington Monument, a pastor had a prayer.

Salvatore Cordileone is the archbishop of -- of all places -- San Francisco. During a March for Marriage that drew thousands to the capital, he spoke some words of tolerant wisdom. "We are your neighbors, we want to be your friends. And we want you to be happy," he said, addressing the opponents of the Church's stance on gay marriage. "Please understand that we don't hate you, that we are not motivated by animus or bigotry ... I would ask that you please try to listen to us fairly and calmly. And try to understand us and our position and we will try to do the same to you."

It might have been the most important thing that was said during the two days.

Archbishop Cordileone went on to explain why the Church defends the traditional definition of marriage.

The archbishop spoke of "rebuilding a marriage culture" and that begins -- and this is only a beginning -- "with preserving in the law the principle that children deserve a mother and a father, and that society should do everything it can ... to help ensure that children get what they deserve," he said.

"Only a man can be a father and only a woman can be a mother, and children need both, and no matter how happy their childhood may be, to grow up without one or the other is always a deprivation," he explained. "This is not discrimination; on the contrary, marriage benefits everyone, including those of us who are not married and those who disagree with us," he said.


The trouble started when the phrase "same-sex marriage" came into common use. "Most people don't realize that marriage is being redefined and the consequences have not been considered," says William May, author of "Getting the Marriage Conversation Right," and president of the outreach group Catholics for the Common Good.

"The question is always framed as participation of same-sex couples in marriage, and whether it is fair or ... constitutional to exclude them. In reality, there is no such thing as 'same-sex marriage' in the law. The law is changed to remove 'man and woman' and 'two persons' is substituted. This redefines marriage, as much as opponents try to deny it."

If the consequences of this is a Supreme Court ruling the likes of Roe v. Wade, one that puts the Supreme Court in the role of culture changer from above, this is where the discrimination will begin.

"The marriage crisis is specifically related to a decline of men and women marrying and an increase of fatherless homes with severe human and societal consequences," May says. "If the only institution that unites kids with their moms and dads is eliminated, it would become legally discriminatory to promote the unique value of men and women marrying before having children," he explains.

Which is why it's time to get down to the business of working out together just what we're talking about when we talk about marriage. This linguistic confusion is not a rhetorical quirk of the age, but the consequence of the upheaval of recent decades. It's what technology, economics and competing ideas about freedom have wrought in the lives of men, women and children.


We all want, need and deserve love. The debate over marriage isn't about questioning -- or denying -- this. It's about what marriage is and what common good the law serves in being involved with it. We won't have a prayer at rebuilding a marriage culture until we seek some clarity and truth here, where charity and love prevail.

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